Lesson Plans

School and Identity: Using Multimedia to Examine the Legacy of Indian Residential Schools

Mike Pinay attended Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School (1953-1963).
Pinay says, “It was the worst ten years of my life. I was away from my family from the age of 6 to 16. How do you learn about relationships, how do you learn about family? I didn’t know what love was. We weren’t even known by names back then; I was a number … 73.” Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Ellie Kay walks through Regina's North Central neighborhood on the way to her dealer's house. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2014.

Deedee Lerat attended Marieval Indian Residential School (1967-1970).
Lerat says, “When I was eight, Mormons swept across Saskatchewan. So I was taken out of residential school and sent to a Mormon foster home for five years. I’ve been told I’m going to hell so many times and in so many ways … now I’m just scared of God.” Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Delina Commana, pictured at left and center right, mother of Doreen Bellaire, attended a residential school in Spanish, Ontario. To protect her own children from the same fate, Ms. Commana left her reserve and moved into town. For decades, Ms. Bellaire’s mother wouldn’t reveal their background, leaving them to question their ethnicity. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2014.

Jimmy Kevin Sayer attended Muskowekwan Indian Residential School (1983-1984).
“I’ve spent half my life incarcerated, and I blame residential school for that. But I also know I have to give up my hate because I’m responsible for myself. I have three adult daughters, and I was in jail for the duration of their childhoods. I have a two-year-old son now, and I need to be there for him. I have to be different.” Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

For more than a century, Indian residential schools separated more than 150,000 aboriginal children from their families to educate and assimilate them into society. The site of the Regina Indian Industrial School's cemetery is pictured above in November. Nothing remains of the school. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2014.

Elwood Friday, who attended St. Phillips Indian Residential School (1951-1953), said “I’ve never told anyone what went on there. It’s shameful. I am ashamed. I’ll never tell anyone, and I’ve done everything to try to forget.” Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

A dream catcher hangs in Ms. Bellaire's home on the Nipissing First Nation reserve in Ontario. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2014.

Left: A swingset in Beauval, Saskatchewan, near the former site of the Beauval Indian Residential School. Right: A painting by Gordon Keewatin tells the story of the residential school system. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

On the Nipissing First Nation reserve in Ontario, Doreen Bellaire, a member of the Ojibwe tribe, inspects the description on the back of a painting by an indigenous artist. Mrs. Bellaire's mother was forced to attend an Indian residential school for a decade. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2014.

Left: At one time, the only road from Beauval Indian Residential School led straight to the Beaver River. Zalcman says that students regularly tried to run away but were either too small to try the crossing or drowned in the attempt. Right: The village of Lebret, Saskatchewan, was home to the Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School. While most of the original school structures have been demolished, one building remains, visible on the far right side of the photo. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

An Asian conical hat—purchased when Ms. Bellaire believed she might be of Asian descent, hangs at her home. For Ms. Bellaire, it is a reminder of the decades long journey to discover her roots. "My mom went to Indian residential school, so she [left the reserve and] raised us in town so we could never be found," she said. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2014.

Angela Rose attended Gordon Indian Residential School (1980-1986).
Rose says, “I used to be able to speak my language when I was little. But now, because of residential school, I only know how to say hello and count to ten. I turn on the native radio station, and I just like to sit and listen. I can’t understand what they’re saying, but every once in a while a word will pop out at me and it’ll jog some small memory. I’ve lost a lot of things, but I think that’s one of the ones I miss most.” Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Kay, whose parents and two uncles attended the residential schools, is an HIV-positive intravenous drug user living in Regina, Saskatchewan. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2014.

Valerie Ewenin attended Muskowekwan Indian Residential School (1965-1971).
Ewenin says, “I was brought up believing in the nature ways, burning sweetgrass, speaking Cree. And then I went to residential school, and all that was taken away from me. And then later on I forgot it, too, and that was even worse.” Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2015.

Ms. Kay visits with family in Regina’s North Central neighborhood. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2014.

Ms. Kay and her brother Joe make a trip to a liquor store. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2014.

Ms. Kay prepares a syringe of morphine for a friend who said he has been on methadone maintenance treatment for more than a decade, but continues to use opioids as well. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2014.

Ms. Kay displays a Ritalin pill she says she purchased from her drug dealer. She says the medication allows her to stay awake longer and counteracts the mellowing effects of opioids. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2014.

Ms. Kay leans her head on the railing of her aunt's home in Regina. She told Ms. Zalcman she hadn’t slept or eaten in two days. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2014.

Dancers and singers perform at the Alderville First Nation drum social. Alderville, a reserve about an hour east of Toronto, is home to about 300 Ojibwe people. "While many aboriginal communities are climbing out of dark pasts, what remains are significant challenges to retain culture, language and traditional strengths while seeking to be adaptive to a new era," a report from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation said. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2014.

A sweat lodge in Regina where First Nation people say they go to reconnect with the culture and relearn old rituals. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2014.

Ms. Bellaire says a prayer over the water from her property on Lake Nipissing in November. Image by Daniella Zalcman. Canada, 2014.


Students will be able to evaluate how an author emphasizes details about Indian Residential Schools using different multimedia by analyzing articles from the project “Signs of your Identity” and creating a photo-blend portrait based on an interview


Discuss with a partner and/or write down your responses to the following questions:

  1. What are words you use to define your identity?
  2. What is the role of school in forming your identity?
  3. What makes a school a positive place to be and what makes a school a negative place to be?

Introducing the Lesson:

Read the following introduction to journalist-grantee Daniella Zalcman's project “Signs of Your Identity” and consider the following:

  1. How much do you know about residential schools?
  2. Why might this be a subject that people don’t know much about?

Daniella Zalcman’s project, “Signs of Your Identity,” explores the legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools, which began operation in the late 1800s. Attendance at the schools was mandatory, and agents would regularly visit reserves to take children as young as two or three from their communities. Many of them wouldn’t see their families again for the next decade. These students were punished for speaking their native languages or observing indigenous traditions. In interviews with the people she met, Zalcman heard stories of routine sexual and physical assault.

The last school closed in 1996. The Canadian government made its first formal apology in 2008. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission that concluded in 2015 officially labeled the system cultural genocide.

Today’s lesson analyzes how an author emphasizes different details when communicating a subject using multimedia. The photos featured in this article use the PhotoBlend app to blend two images into one image.

Introducing Resource 1: "Pictured With Their Past, Survivors of Canada's 'Cultural Genocide' Speak Out"

Use the questions attached to explore the National Geographic article. As you go through each question, consider the following:

  1. What details are emphased by each piece of writing/media?
  2. What is the impact of looking at photos and text together?
  3. How does the school environment impact the identity of a student?

After reading:

As a class, discuss what additional information is communicated in the National Geographic text.

Brainstorm words to describe the tone of the text. How is it alike/different from the tone of the photo slideshow?

With a partner, create a plan for photo blend portraits of Janet and Deb. Consider the following:

  1. How would you design your photo of each person?
  2. What would you want to photograph to blend with the images of Janet and Deb?
  3. What text would you use in the captions?

Be prepared to share your plans with the class.


Read the attached article “Healing After a Century of Discrimination in Canada” and use the photos included in the article to plan three photo-blend portraits. Consider the following:

  1. Which subjects would you want to photograph?
  2. What text would you use in each caption?
  3. What images would you use for the photo blend?

In the project “Signs of Your Identity,” Zalcman writes, “How do you photograph the past? How do you show what remains in the wake of so much trauma and abuse?”

Identify someone in your life (a classmate, a teacher, a parent, someone that works at your school) to interview about their identity. In your interview, find out how an event (positive or negative) impacted the person’s identify. Photograph the person and the blend that image with another photograph to communicate what you learned in your interview. Use your interview to create a caption for the photo.

Once you finish, tweet your photos to Daniella Zalcman @theempathygap

Educator Notes: 

In this lesson plan, students will examine the impact of Indian Residential Schools run by the Canadian government throughout the 20th century by reviewing interviews and photography from Pulitzer Center journalist-grantee Daniella Zalcman. Through project-based learning, discussion and reading, students will evaluate how an author emphasizes details using different multimedia and explore the impact of a school environment on personal identify.


Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person’s life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.

Lesson Facilitation Notes:

1. The lesson plan is written for students to be able to explore the resources independently and reflection exercises independently.

2. Students may need to have an extra sheet of paper, or a blank online document open, to answer the warm up, comprehension and extension questions.

3. The lesson lists several extension exercises. Students could choose one or work through all of the listed exercises.

4. The warm up and post-reading reflections in this lesson could also lead to rich conversations. You may want to work through the lesson along with the students and denote moments for interactive activities.

5. With questions about this lesson, contact education@pulitzercenter.org

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